The AAPI Star Trek Characters Who Broke Barriers

In its mission to boldly go where no one has gone before, Star Trek has always given us some of the most diverse crews in the galaxy. This Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I’d like to highlight several of the AAPI characters and actors who have had an impact on Star Trek both on their starship crews and in the culture at large. For many AAPI people, the Star Trek franchise is where we saw ourselves for the first time; and as a Japanese American who grew up in an almost entirely white community, seeing people who looked like me in Star Trek sparked my love for science fiction and made me feel less alone in the universe.

[Spoiler alert: I will discuss plot points from various shows, especially the newest Star Trek series, Discovery.]

 

George Takei as Hikaru Sulu

George Takei as Captain Sulu

Screenshot: CBS

Originally written as a mathematician in the Star Trek pilot, Mr. Sulu became the helmsman and a key member of the bridge crew once the show went to series. Rather than presenting the character as an Asian stereotype marked solely by an ethnocentric accent or martial arts expertise, Star Trek and Takei gave us a well-rounded character whose identity did not begin and end at his heritage. Although his Japanese background was not ignored, it was never Sulu’s defining characteristic. His dignity, intelligence, and devotion to his crew was what made him a valued officer on the USS Enterprise.

This iconic role looms even larger in the franchise now that Takei has become such an active spokesman for AAPI and LGBTQIA+ issues. He’s been ubiquitous on the internet ever since he publicly came out as gay in 2005, and has gone on to become a cultural icon in his own right. Takei’s accomplishments are almost too many to name, but after Star Trek, probably his most important work has been bringing the musical Allegiance to life, inspired by the experience of Japanese Americans imprisoned in internment camps during World War II. Having spent his earliest years in the Tule Lake Camp, Takei continues to tell his story so that our country never forgets the trauma inflicted on Japanese Americans—an act of bearing witness which is vitally important in a community whose elders are often reluctant to talk about what they endured. Fortunately, we have people like Takei who continue to speak up against the Japanese internment and keep this history alive. 

 

Rosalind Chao as Keiko O’Brien

Rosalind Chao as Keiko O'Brien

Screenshot: CBS

Although she only appeared in twenty-six episodes across Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine (both of which ran for seven seasons), Keiko O’Brien’s presence leaves an indelible mark on the franchise. She was the first AAPI woman I can remember seeing on TV, and I believe her presence in TNG was one of the major reasons I was drawn to the show when I first started watching it in syndication in the ’90s. Years later, I would watch the series and become disillusioned with the relationship between Keiko and Chief O’Brien, often wondering why these two characters who didn’t seem to like each other ever got married in the first place. It was a disappointment to me that a prominent Asian character would be reduced to a nagging wife who was portrayed as arguing constantly with her husband.

However, DS9 breathed new life into Keiko, making her a more multi-dimensional person, first fighting for the right to teach science in the station’s school without the influence of religious doctrine, then later recommitting herself to her career in botany despite the challenges it presented for her and her husband. Keiko and Chief O’Brien became a true team in DS9, working together to meet those challenges and find solutions that would make their marriage stronger. 

In interviews, Chao has talked about the many opportunities she had to play a bigger role in both shows, but she always hesitated to commit fully to Star Trek. She was originally offered the part of Tasha Yar when TNG was first in the casting process, but she turned it down; then when DS9 began, the producers wanted to make Keiko a regular character, but again Chao declined the expansion of her role. I certainly don’t judge her career choices—Chao’s career is full of culturally important projects like The Joy Luck Club. Still, I can’t help but wonder about the version of TNG and DS9 that had Chao play a larger part in either show. What might it have been like to grow up seeing an AAPI woman on TV be more than a wife and mother?

 

Patti Yasutake as Nurse Alyssa Ogawa

Patti Yasutake as Alissa Ogawa

Screenshot: CBS

To answer that question, I’ll turn to Patti Yasutake’s role as Nurse Alyssa Ogawa on TNG. Although she was seen more often in the background than center stage, Nurse Ogawa gradually became a ubiquitous character in the ship’s sickbay, as well as serving as Dr. Beverly Crusher’s reliable right hand. In my memory, Nurse Ogawa is always at Dr. Crusher’s side, providing the best medical care possible in the most dire situations. She never got her own storylines, but she played a prominent role in many episodes, even unknowingly saving the entire crew’s life in the season seven episode “Genesis,” when a medical treatment gone wrong causes everyone to de-evolve. 

It was rare at the time to see more than one character of the same minority background on a show (I don’t count Geordi and Worf because Worf was technically Klingon, not cast as a Black man), so Nurse Ogawa’s presence stood out to me, especially since she was also Japanese. Unlike with Keiko O’Brien, her Japanese background is never addressed, but it meant a great deal to me to see two Japanese women on the Enterprise. Yasutake herself has also been ubiquitous in TV ever since her Star Trek days, playing guest roles in shows like ER, The Closer, and Grey’s Anatomy.

 

John Cho as Hikaru Sulu

John Cho as Ensign Sulu

Screenshot: Paramount Pictures

The 2009 reboot of Star Trek may have launched John Cho into a whole new strata of movie star status, but I always knew who he was, from TV guest spots in the ’90s to the dark underbelly of high school overachievers in Better Luck Tomorrow to the ridiculous hijinks of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. So although I initially felt a bit disappointed that a Japanese American actor wasn’t cast in the role of Sulu, it was easy to brush that off knowing the character was in Cho’s capable hands.

Three movies later (and with another slated for 2023), Cho has made his own mark on the franchise and Mr. Sulu. At no point did he ever try to recreate what Takei brought to the character, which was the absolute best choice—there’s only one George Takei. Sulu is still the same quietly intelligent helmsman in Cho’s portrayal, but with the new timeline we get to see a younger, less confident Sulu find his footing among the Enterprise crew. 

Sulu was also rewritten as gay for the reboot—a decision that stirred up some controversy when it was announced—and we see him with his husband and daughter in Star Trek Beyond. The moment is not belabored, and it’s a significant milestone for Star Trek, which had never explicitly shown gay people in the series or movies. There are episodes here and there in which the concept of non-hetereosexual romance is touched upon in a round-about way, but not until Star Trek Beyond did we see a human, homosexual couple treated as a normal occurrence.

This change did not go without criticism, and from a surprising quarter: Takei himself was against the decision, saying that it did not align with creator Gene Roddenberry’s original vision, and it also implied that sexuality could be a choice given that the Sulu of Takei’s timeline was not gay while Cho’s new-timeline Sulu was. It’s a valid point, and one I believe should be taken seriously, but I also appreciate the portrayal of an Asian gay man in Star Trek because it continues to shatter stereotypes by demonstrating the vast breadth of people in the galaxy.

 

Garrett Wang as Ensign Harry Kim

Garrett Wang as Harry Kim

Screenshot: CBS

In Star Trek: Voyager, Ensign Kim celebrates his first mission as a commissioned officer by getting lost in the Delta Quadrant, which is so far away it will take the Voyager 75 years to make its way back home. As the youngest member of the crew, Harry Kim also served as the audience stand-in for the show, giving voice to our own wonder and amazement at the new discoveries Voyager makes in the Delta Quadrant. He represents a type of Starfleet character we hadn’t seen in a while—someone who is new to the universe and eager to learn.

While AAPI characters were never absent from Star Trek, Harry Kim was the first main cast member on a show since Mr. Sulu in the original series, as well as the first Korean character on a bridge crew. However, Voyager makes a rather significant misstep by conflating Garrett Wang’s Chinese heritage with Ensign Kim, alluding more to a Chinese background than anything else. In the years since Voyager, actor Garrett Wang revealed that the creators always considered Harry Kim to be Chinese. It took Wang pointing out that “Kim” is a Korean surname to set the record straight, but by then it was too late to weave this into the ensign’s backstory.

It’s unfortunate that so little thought was put into who Harry Kim was as an Asian man, and it’s an issue that every AAPI person has to deal with ad nauseam. The term “Asian” itself lumps together billions of people from extremely varied cultures and traditions, and while Americans can tell the difference between Irish and Scottish culture, AAPI cultures (such as Chinese and Korean) are often treated as the same thing. On the other hand, Harry Kim wasn’t chained to the usual stereotypes surrounding Asian men, which was helped along by the attention Garrett Wang garnered in 1997 after People magazine named him to its list of the 50 Most Beautiful People in the World. In fact, Wang believes that he kept his job on the show because of that issue of People. Many thanks to People magazine for recognizing that Asian men are incredibly attractive too.

 

Linda Park as Ensign Hoshi Sato

Linda Park as Hoshi Sato

Screenshot: CBS

Star Trek: Enterprise was the first show in the franchise that I watched from the beginning as it aired, and of course Hoshi Sato (another Japanese character, although Park herself is Korean) was immediately my favorite crew member. The show followed the first human foray into space, centuries before Captain Kirk would take his own Enterprise on its five-year mission. Since the only alien race humans had met up to this point were the Vulcans, the USS Enterprise needed an expert in languages, and that expert was Hoshi Sato. Eventually, Hoshi created the foundation for the universal translator—the means by which every future Federation crew would communicate with species they’d never before encountered.

Linda Park’s portrayal of Hoshi resonated with me deeply. Hoshi was not trained to be a starship officer, and she spent most of the first season terrified of space and trying to manage that fear. Young me was also a little scared of the great wide world, but watching Hoshi conquer her fears every week made me feel I could do the same. Her facility with languages also sparked my interest in linguistics, inspiring me to do my own digging into what makes up the building blocks of a language system, turning words into communication. 

 

Michelle Yeoh as Philippa Georgiou

Actor Michelle Yeoh as Captain Philippa Georgiou in Star Trek: Discovery.

Screenshot: CBS

How many actors get to play the same character in two completely different ways? Well, it turns out most actors in Star Trek get that chance. The Mirror Universe was introduced in the original series, and has made appearances in many of the franchise’s shows, giving us “evil” alternate universe versions of our favorite characters. Most recently, it’s played a huge part in Star Trek: Discovery where Captain Philippa Georgiou was replaced by her Mirror Universe counterpart, Emperor of the Terran Empire Philippa Georgiou.

Michelle Yeoh was already a screen legend before joining Star Trek, and her vast talent is on full display in Discovery. Not only do we get to see a master actor dominate every scene she’s in, but Yeoh also brings her cinematic fighting expertise to the show, raising the stakes of the action with every meticulously choreographed fight. I especially love seeing an older woman kicking ass and taking names rather than being relegated to a minor role on the ship. Although Yeoh isn’t American (she hails from Malaysia), I feel it’s important to highlight her as an Asian captain, as well as one of the few female captains to take center stage in a Star Trek show. Women in Star Trek are usually side characters, even if they are side characters we see a lot of, so Yeoh’s Georgiou marks a significant change in the franchise.

 

Eugene Cordero as Ensign Samanthan Rutherford

Eugene Cordero as Sam Rutherford

Star Trek: Lower Decks (Screenshot: CBS) and The Good Place (Screenshot: NBC)

As a lifelong Star Trek fan, I cannot express enough how excited the announcement of Lower Decks made me feel, especially once I heard that Eugene Cordero would voice one of the characters. Lower Decks is the first Star Trek comedy, though not the first animated series, and it pokes fun at all the best (and worst) things about Star Trek. It’s clearly made by people who love Star Trek and know it well enough to deliver the best jokes about the franchise. So bringing in talented comedic voice actors was key, and they definitely hit the mark with Cordero.

The actor got his start in Chicago with the improv theatre company Chicago City Limits, and has had recurring roles on hilarious shows such as Bajillion Dollar Propertie$ and The Good Place. He brings his comedic experience to the brilliant yet hapless Ensign Rutherford, infusing the character with a sort of clueless wonder and curiosity that made me love him instantly. The show hasn’t established Rutherford’s heritage yet, but since Cordero is Filipino, it will likely be written into the character’s backstory in the future. Recent Star Trek series have made even more of an effort to diversify the casts, and Filipinos have been underrepresented in the franchise thus far, so I hope it does become established canon in the future. Either way, Cordero is a much welcome addition to the AAPI Star Trek family, and I can’t wait to see what happens with Ensign Rutherford over the course of the show.

 

And it’s only the beginning…

This is just a small sampling of AAPI characters and actors in the Star Trek universe, and I hope the list grows longer as the franchise continues. We’re eager to see more of ourselves in American culture, and I think the addition of international actors also adds a positive impact on representation. It meant a lot for me to see Rosalind Chao and Patti Yasutake in TNG, and the AAPI characters of each subsequent Star Trek series have meant just as much, especially since it’s still surprisingly difficult to find AAPI actors on TV.

We’re composed of far more complex peoples than the vague term “Asian” implies; it’s a term that flattens and reduces our varied identities into one label that conveys almost nothing. Not only is it important that younger generations have the experience of seeing AAPI play important roles in American culture, inspiring them to be more than what stereotypes narrowly define them to be, but it’s also important for non-AAPI to recognize our differences and to develop a greater awareness of the many backgrounds, cultures, and experiences we represent.

Amanda Reiko Andonian is a writer living and working in the home of Starfleet, San Francisco, CA. She holds a Masters from the Center for East Asian Studies at Stanford University.

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